Ghost “Orbs” at the Witch’s Barn

April 24, 2017

Many ghost hunters insist that “orbs”—strange balls of light that mysteriously appear in their photos—are a form of “spirit energy.” If so, they seem nowhere more evident than at a Rhode Island barn where, according to some sources, two persons were hanged, including a witch named Bathsheba. She was central to the horror film, The Conjuring, reportedly based on the case files of the infamous Ed and Lorraine Warren, self-styled “demonologist” and “clairvoyant” who made a career of scaring people with made-up demons.

The barn stands by a farmhouse where the Perron family claimed to have been plagued by demons from 1971 to 1980. In an article (Nickell 2014) and the book American Hauntings (Bartholomew and Nickell 2015), I showed that many occurrences were consistent with misperceptions, vivid dreams, schoolgirl pranks, and the like—a suggestible Carolyn Perron having been egged on by the Warrens.

In mid-2016, I accepted the invitation of Norma Sutcliffe to visit the property, on which she and her husband had lived undisturbed for some three decades, to see additional evidence that the tale had been fantasized and fictionalized (Nickell 2016).

In fact, Bathsheba Sherman was not a witch and did not hang herself in the old barn, having died of a stroke in 1885. Neither did Susan Arnold, who hanged herself in an attic at her home elsewhere in 1866. Many other deaths, attributed to the house and its demons, also occurred elsewhere (Nickell 2016, 22). With Norma, I visited the grave sites and studied the death and other records of persons allegedly involved, exposing the shoddy research and bogus claims that are still being made (Nickell 2016).

But someone must have died in the barn, or else how do we explain the profusion of orbs I photographed there? (See accompanying photo.) Actually, the only connection between orbs and ghosts is in the minds of some ghost hunters. They look for ghosts in “haunted” places and seem to confirm their existence by photographing orbs at the sites. But as I have long been saying, ghost hunters often cause—even if unintentionally—some of the very phenomena they are experiencing (Nickell 2012, 280).

And this is just what happened at Norma Sutcliffe’s barn when we visited it on a tour of her historic property. As I have been doing at “haunted” sites for years (Alcatraz, for a You-tube video, for instance), as well as at non-haunted places (like CFI’s Library, for the benefit of media like CBS News Sunday Morning), I simply stirred up dust in advance of snapping flash photos. The result is that the flash rebounds from particles close to the lens. (See Nickell 2012, 145, 272, 306.) Voila! Orbs!


Bartholomew, Robert E., and Joe Nickell. 2015. American Hauntings: The True Stories behind Hollywood’s Scariest Movies. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Nickell, Joe. 2012. The Science of Ghosts. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

———. 2014. “The Conjuring: Ghosts? Poltergeist? Demons?” Skeptical Inquirer 38(2) (March/April): 22–25.

———. 2016. “Dispelling Demons: Detective Work at The Conjuring House.” Skeptical Inquirer 40 (6) (November/December): 20–24.